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First coupe glass

coupe glass champagne tower

There are a lot of sensationalist stories swirling around the coupe glass. One of the most headline-grabbing is the claim that its shallow bowl shape is moulded on Marie Antoinette’s left breast.

Marie Antoinette on whose left breast the coupe glass was said to have been moulded

As one of the most extravagant, decadent and scandal-inducing queens in history, how has she become so universally and persistently associated with an item of glassware?

The coupe glass has always been an elegant and delicate luxury item, its history intricately intertwined with that of champagne. Pronounced ‘koop’, in the French style, the glass has been highly prized in aristocratic and fashionable circles for hundreds of years – especially amongst French nobility. So far, so Antoinette.


Aesthetically it was unlike any other glassware of its time, smaller and thinner than ale, cider or traditional wine glasses, and handblown by skilled craftsmen trained over decades. It was a shape reserved for the gentlemen classes (the clergy drank sparkling wine out of Bordeaux glasses) and duly commanded a higher price.


There is certainly proof that the coupe glass was insanely popular during Marie Antoinette’s reign, but this is where the story also unravels. The infamous French queen was born on 2nd November 1755, around 85 years after the supposed invention of the coupe glass in the early 1670s.


But the myth is based on a small kernel of truth, although it’s got confused or been creatively rewritten along the way. In 1787, Marie’s husband, Louis XVI, is known to have surprised his wife with a 65-piece porcelain dinner service for their Château de Rambouillet in Versailles, complete with four jatte-téton – basically, bowls shaped like breasts specifically for drinking milk. 

Marie Antoinette jatte-téton Versailles

Designed by porcelain artist Jean-Jacques Lagreneé of Sévres, but based on a similar ritualistic Greek vessel with a nipple at the base called a mastos cup, they were the centrepiece of her L’Hameau de la Reine, the Hamlet of the Queen, which included a ‘Pleasure Dairy’, where she and her courtesans could pretend to be milkmaids in their arcadian marble outbuildings. This incredible extravagance was later widely used as propaganda for their debauched lifestyle (ultimately leading to the French Revolution) but has nothing to do with a coupe glass in the shape of her breasts.


But this is not the only association between coupe glasses and breasts. It is often claimed that new dancers at the Folies Bergère in the late 1800s had to go through a coupe test, where a glass was put over their breasts to determine who would get the job. If they stayed within the glass, they were in the troupe. If not, they were rejected. More recently, adding further fuel to the Antoinette myth, Karl Lagerfeld designed a coupe glass bowl (like the mastos cup) in 2008 based on supermodel Claudia Schiffer’s chest to celebrate the launch of Dom Pérignon 1995 vintage.

Kate Moss’ left breast was used to create a coupe glass by artist Jane McAdam Freud for 34 Mayfair.

And in 2014, to honour her 25 years in the fashion industry, Kate Moss’ left breast was used to create a coupe glass designed by artist Jane McAdam Freud for The Ivy’s sister restaurant, 34 Mayfair.


But let’s go back a bit…


The first time a bottle of champagne, and accompanying coupe glasses, were captured on canvas was in 1735. They featured prominently in Jean-François de Troy’s The Oyster Dinner, commissioned by Louis XV (the grandfather of Marie Antoinette’s husband) for his private post-hunt dining room in the Palace of Versailles. A renowned French court artist and portraitist, De Troy pioneered a style known as tableaux de mode, a genre that realistically depicted and reflected aristocratic life, luxury and fashions in 18th century France – one of the reasons we know so much about the minutiae of daily life in this period.


The painting shows a party of French gentlemen (not a woman in sight) at a lavish banquet, quaffing oysters and champagne in an ornate palatial room. It’s a brilliantly evocative and dynamic scene, full of life, energy and humour. Young attendants are shucking oysters, older servants are pouring sparkling wine from bulbous bottles. Oysters lie on silver platters, with bread, butter, salt, pepper and wild garlic to accompany them. One of the diners has just popped a cork with a knife (by severing the string that held it in place) and is amusedly following the trajectory of the cork across the room. Most notably, it shows everyone drinking their champagne out of elegant coupe glasses. If you look closely, you can see a few of the glasses are upside down in porcelain bowls – a fascinating insight into how champagne used to be enjoyed.

Jean-François de Troy’s The Oyster Dinner, commissioned by Louis XV

Champagne had not long been invented but was already adored by the House of Bourbon, the French royal dynasty. It was said that Louis XIV, father of Louis XV, was prescribed it daily, drinking it at every meal. But the taste was not what we’re used to today. It would have been much sweeter and more syrupy, with only a little effervescence, and drunk in one gulp rather than sipped (like a shot of tequila). The coupe glass enabled this perfectly, the round, shallow shape allowed it to be easily knocked back in one swift movement (just one of the many reasons champagne has a reputation for excess). The larger surface area of the glass also meant the bubbles dissipated quickly – the ‘sparkling’ nature of the wine wasn’t as highly prized as it is now. These early champagnes also contained a lot of natural sediment, this was years before disgorgement became a common practice, so drinkers would have to upturn their coupe glasses over a bowl to allow the excess yeast and lees to drain out – as depicted in the painting. Interesting, eh?


We’ve talked a lot about France – and its courtly fashions – but the coupe glass was actually invented in England in the late 17th century. Charles II had just ascended the throne with a lavish coronation on 22nd April 1661.

Charles II coronation

His return spurred a rapid rise in glassmaking and creativity – with the Duke of Buckingham leading the charge by making ‘cristall’ glassware in his own furnaces in Greenwich with a team of Venetian glassmakers. His glassworks would have produced a small glass called a tazza (Italian for ‘cup’), a flared bowl shape specifically designed for drinking wine, which had been created on the island of Murano in Venice for many years.


This increase in glassmaking activity was certainly influenced by a 1662 published translation by Christopher Merrett (he of English sparkling wine fame) of Antonio Neri’s 1612 Art of Glass, which gave details of how to make colourless (‘cristall’) glass in the Venetian style.


Around this time, George Ravenscroft was coming onto the scene too. He is universally thought to be the ‘inventor’ (well, the man with the legal patent) of lead crystal glassware – which led to the creation of the coupe glass in its current form. He was an English trader living in Venice, who spoke fluent Italian and Latin, and who specialised in exporting luxury goods, like lace, mirrors and glasses. In 1666, he permanently returned to England to take over his father’s import/export business and subsequently set up his own glassworks at the Savoy in 1673 with John Baptiste da Costa, a Jewish glassmaker from Piedmont, northern Italy – and the brains behind the pioneering glassmaking technique.


It would have been da Costa who discovered that adding flint and lead oxide to molten glass made it easier to work with, paving the way for innovative new techniques and styles. It allowed glassmakers to craft their material in its softened state for longer – so no more trapped air bubbles as seen in previous period glassware – and drinking glasses could be made thinner and stronger.


Ravenscroft was granted a patent from King Charles II on 16th May 1674, specifically for drinking glasses, making him exclusive producer of lead crystal in England for seven years.


As his patent stated, he had invented: “a perticular Sort of Christaline Glasse resembling Rock Christall, not formerly exercised or used in this our Kingdome….”


Attorney General Francis North, whose job it was to investigate all new patents, said:

“[I] find that the glass mettle mentioned in the petition is of a finer sort, and made of other ingredients, than any other glass-houses in England have used, and in that respect may well be esteemed a new invention . . . the glasses thereby made do equalize if not excell those that are imported from Venice and France.”

glassblowing in 18th century

The Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers of London (which received its Charter from King Charles II in 1664) were very interested in Ravenscroft’s patent. So much so, they entered into an agreement on 27th April 1674 to exclusively buy all his glass. This is significant as the Company then took a key role in specifying the type of glassware he was to produce: “Mr Moore knows better what is fitter to be made for the Trade both as to ffashion and size.” 


And what was in fashion? Sparkling champagne of course, which had become Charles II’s favourite drink since he’d been first introduced to it in the 1660s.  


Guy Patin, a French doctor and man of letters, mentioned in his writing in 1666 that Louis XIV had presented Charles II with “two hundred pièces of excellent wine—Champagne, Burgundy, and Hermitage”. Since then, it was Charles de St. Denis, Seigneur de Saint Evremond, a French essayist (and hedonist) who had systematically introduced champagne to Britain. Evremond had been exiled from France for criticising the all-powerful Cardinal Mazarin and sought refuge in Charles’ court – where he thrived.  


(In gratitude for supplying champagne to him, Charles II gave Evremond a pension of £300 a year and appointed him Governor of Duck Island in the middle of St James’s Park!)


Suddenly, the trend for champagne needed a fashionable glass to match it. It is thought that Ravenscroft’s glassworks renamed the Italian tazza as the English cup, which later became the French coupe to make it sound more elegant and luxurious. And an iconic high-society essential was born!


The coupe glass remains popular to this day – still thought of as the height of sophistication – with numerous references in modern culture. Its heyday was probably between the 1930s and 1950s in post-Prohibition USA, when film starlets were seemingly holding them at every red carpet event.


In The Great Gatsby "champagne was served in glasses bigger than finger-bowls”. Cary Grant suavely cradles a coupe glass in An Affair to Remember and Roman Holiday in the 1940s. Bogart is constantly pouring champagne into coupes for Ingrid Bergman in the film Casablanca, which won Best Picture in 1942. In the 1950s it was the likes of Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Jackie Kennedy that kept coupe couture alive.

Sophia Loren and coupe glasses

But it was its shape that eventually caused its own demise as a champagne glass. As its wide surface area causes the bubbles to dissipate rapidly, the flute glass became top dog – emphasising fizziness over aesthetics. Through modern TV programmes like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, there has been a bit of a resurgence – but it is in the world of mixology where it’s making waves again as bartenders are using their glassware to express theatre and elegance in their (non-effervescent) creations.


Right, I’m off for a celebratory glass of champagne. Guess what glass I’ll be drinking it out of?

Taittanger champagne coupe glass tower


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